Afraid | Easter Day

Worship video:

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (CEB)

Afraid

Of all the Gospel accounts that describe the reaction of the disciples on the Third Day, I think I like Mark’s the best. To me, Mark’s account feels the most real. In John’s Gospel, when the Disciples see Jesus, they’re filled with joy (John 20:20). In Matthew’s Gospel, the women were filled with fear and excitement and they worshipped Jesus, (Matthew 28:8-9) and when the men saw him, they worshipped him but some doubted (Matthew 28:17).

Luke’s Gospel sounds similar to Mark’s in that the women were frightened of the two men in gleaming white clothes (Luke 24:4-5). The other disciples—the men—as is typical, didn’t believe the women’s tale (Luke 24:11). And when Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group, “They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37 CEB).

In Mark’s Gospel, the men don’t even bother to show up at the tomb, and the women were so afraid at the resurrection message that they said nothing to anyone. It’s not exactly the glorious day we typically imagine, is it? While some of us might be thinking, What does fear have to do with Easter?, we might take a moment to consider how we would respond if we went to a tomb and some random messenger told us the dead person had been raised and we would soon see them. Even if the person who had died was someone we loved, how would we respond? I imagine the women were afraid the now un-dead Jesus really would appear to them.

Personally, I get why they were terrified. I don’t want to see a ghost either. If I was told that such an encounter with the formerly-deceased was forthcoming, I would probably try to make a run for it. And if that apparition did appear, I’d start throwing whatever I could find at the thing to make it go away. I would feel fear. I would feel terror. And anyone with me in that moment would probably witness the greatest come-apart the world has ever known. What would you do, honestly?

Also, consider the fact that, if Jesus is raised as the messenger proclaimed, the disciples—women and men—might have wondered what he would do to those who had abandoned and deserted him when he was arrested. What would someone who came back from the dead think about his own trusted followers who had disappeared, who fled into the night in fear as soon as they were confronted by the religious and political powers, who turned away from him as soon as things got tough? Jesus might have preached love in his lifetime, but the disciples had betrayed and abandoned him. If he was back, if he was like anyone else, he might be out for a little vengeful punishment. After all, God is just, and they were guilty.

What are we to do with this encounter: women fleeing from an empty tomb, overcome by terror, dread, and fear? They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. What is the church to do with this? Truth be told, if we’ve read the Gospel of Mark, we shouldn’t be surprised by this last story of fear. The disciples and others in Mark’s Gospel were afraid. In Mark, fear acts almost as the antithesis of faith, and Jesus was always trying to get them to have faith instead of giving in to their fear.

When Jesus calmed the storm, he said to his terrified disciples, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB).

When the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, had died, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB) before he raised her from death.

When a woman touched Jesus and was healed from her disease, she fell down before him in fear and trembling before he told her that her faith had made her well (Mark 5:33-34). 

When Jesus walked on the water, the Disciples saw him and screamed in terror thinking he was a ghost, and Jesus said, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid” (Mark 6:49-50).

When Jesus taught his disciples that he would be killed and raised up, they were afraid (Mark 9:32).

When Jesus told the rich man to go and sell what he had and give to the poor because it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and said “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first,” everyone who heard this teaching was afraid (Mark 10:31-32 CEB).

Can we not imagine why Mark simply ends with the words, “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8 CEB). Of all the Gospel accounts, Mark’s text speaks most accurately to how wretched and fearful we often are. Everyone who reads Mark’s Gospel gets confronted with the question: will our response to Jesus be fear or faith. So, honestly, I appreciate Mark’s candidness about who we really are, and how afraid we often are about everything.

We post-modern Christians are sometimes even afraid to admit that the resurrection is what it is. We’re secretly embarrassed by the whole idea. Since the mid-twentieth century, some theologians have denied that the resurrection happened. They claim resurrection is a rather awkward tale we’ve conjured up to give us comfort in the face of our impending death, little more than a feel-good measure.

But Paul makes it clear that the resurrection of Jesus is the reality, not a figment of imagination. He said, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. We are found to be false witnesses about God because we testified against God that he raised Christ, when he didn’t raise him, if it’s the case that the dead aren’t raised…” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15 CEB).

Without the resurrection, we have nothing to preach, no good news to proclaim to the world. If Jesus has really and truly been defeated, then we may as well suck it up because everything we witness in the world every day is true. Evil reigns because evil is powerful. Sometimes we see glimpses of goodness here and there, but in the end we die. Everyone dies. Empires and Republics rise and fall. The world spins on its way to oblivion, so we may as well heed the words of Ecclesiasts and eat, drink, and be merry, because ultimately nothing matters. It might even be easier to put on a brave face and deal with God’s absence.

Because, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then the consequences suggest that, like the women, we have good reason to fear! If Jesus is raised, then nothing is truly immovable, no reality is unchangeable, no future is limited. If God is really on the loose like this, overturing death and flipping the hard facts of life on their head, then we might really face a present and future reality that is beyond our control. If Christ has been raised, then the possibilities are endless! So, it’s understandable—the women at the tomb would certainly understand—if we balk in fear when Paul echoes the messenger at the empty tomb and says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20a CEB).

All Christian preaching—from the first sermon by Peter in Acts of the Apostles, to the last sermon preached before the Lord returns and the world is made new—all Christian preaching begins with Easter. It begs the question, is Easter Day a big Sunday, or is every Sunday a little Easter? While both are true, in light of Paul’s words, it’s clear that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christ is risen! With the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has rewritten human history. God’s righteousness shall overcome evil, sin, and death. The story is not over!

The women approached the tomb that day thinking that the story was over. Jesus had died, and that was that. They would grieve. They would wish the things he had said had come true. But, in the end, the story of Jesus was just another sad story with a tragic ending. To their terrified surprise, they were confronted by a new beginning, a new reality. This story hadn’t ended after all. No, this story had just begun.

Jesus has been raised from the dead, and with his resurrection, God showed us how the world ought to be: a world where there is no more mourning, crying, death, or pain. A world where we forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven. A world where God’s will is done on earth in the same way that God’s will is done in heaven. A world where everyone receives their daily bread because enough is always a feast.

A world where we love our neighbors and recognize that all the world is our neighbor. A world where the hopeless receive a kingdom, where the grieved are made glad, where the humble inherit the earth, where the hungry and thirsty are fed until they are filled, where the merciful received mercy, where the pure in heart see God, where the peacemakers become God’s children, where those who suffer harassment, insult, and evil receive a joyful and glad reward.

“‘Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.’ Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:6-8 CEB).

That could have been the end of the story. If the women had remained imprisoned by their fear, we never would have known. But they did overcome their fear. And they did tell the story. How could they not? And how can we not? Christ has been raised! And the world is forever changed. But, perhaps most importantly, we—like the women on that first Easter morning—are changed, too. And we can never leave the empty tomb the same way we came to it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Palm – Passion Sunday | 6th in Lent

Worship Video:

Mark 14:1-15:47

14: 1 It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2 But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.

3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? 5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. 7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. 8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. 9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

10 Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to give Jesus up to them. 11 When they heard it, they were delighted and promised to give him money. So he started looking for an opportunity to turn him in.

12 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, the disciples said to Jesus, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”

13 He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city. A man carrying a water jar will meet you. Follow him. 14 Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks, “Where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?”‘ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs already furnished. Prepare for us there.” 16 The disciples left, came into the city, found everything just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

17 That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 During the meal, Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me– someone eating with me.”

19 Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, “It’s not me, is it?”

20 Jesus answered, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl. 21 The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.” 26 After singing songs of praise, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

27 Jesus said to them, “You will all falter in your faithfulness to me. It is written, I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep will go off in all directions. 28 But after I’m raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

29 Peter said to him, “Even if everyone else stumbles, I won’t.”

30 But Jesus said to him, “I assure you that on this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

31 But Peter insisted, “If I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” And they all said the same thing.

32 Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. 34 He said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert.” 35 Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. 36 He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”

37 He came and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you stay alert for one hour? 38 Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.”

39 Again, he left them and prayed, repeating the same words. 40 And, again, when he came back, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t know how to respond to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, “Will you sleep and rest all night? That’s enough! The time has come for the Human One to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up! Let’s go! Look, here comes my betrayer.”

43 Suddenly, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came with a mob carrying swords and clubs. They had been sent by the chief priests, legal experts, and elders. 44 His betrayer had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss, and take him away under guard.”

45 As soon as he got there, Judas said to Jesus, “Rabbi!” Then he kissed him. 46 Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.

47 One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear. 48 Jesus responded, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw? 49 Day after day, I was with you, teaching in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And all his disciples left him and ran away. 51 One young man, a disciple, was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They grabbed him, 52 but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked.

53 They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders, and legal experts gathered. 54 Peter followed him from a distance, right into the high priest’s courtyard. He was sitting with the guards, warming himself by the fire. 55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they couldn’t find any. 56 Many brought false testimony against him, but they contradicted each other. 57 Some stood to offer false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him saying, ‘I will destroy this temple, constructed by humans, and within three days I will build another, one not made by humans.'” 59 But their testimonies didn’t agree even on this point.

60 Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus. “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” 61 But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer. Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

62 Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”

63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? 64 You’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”

They all condemned him. “He deserves to die!”

65 Some began to spit on him. Some covered his face and hit him, saying, “Prophesy!” Then the guards took him and beat him.

66 Meanwhile, Peter was below in the courtyard. A woman, one of the high priest’s servants, approached 67 and saw Peter warming himself by the fire. She stared at him and said, “You were also with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

68 But he denied it, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t understand what you’re saying.” And he went outside into the outer courtyard. A rooster crowed.

69 The female servant saw him and began a second time to say to those standing around, “This man is one of them.” 70 But he denied it again.

A short time later, those standing around again said to Peter, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean.”

71 But he cursed and swore, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” 72 At that very moment, a rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered what Jesus told him, “Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down, sobbing.

15: 1 At daybreak, the chief priests—with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin—formed a plan. They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” 3 The chief priests were accusing him of many things.

4 Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations?” 5 But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

6 During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. 7 A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. 8 The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. 9 Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” 10 He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. 12 Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”

13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?”

They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. 18 They saluted him, “Hey! King of the Jews!” 19 Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. 20 When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

21 Simon, a man from Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus’ father, was coming in from the countryside. They forced him to carry his cross.

22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place. 23 They tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it. 24 They crucified him. They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what. 25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.” 27 They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.

29 People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? 30 Save yourself and come down from that cross!”

31 In the same way, the chief priests were making fun of him among themselves, together with the legal experts. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross. Then we’ll see and believe.” Even those who had been crucified with Jesus insulted him.

33 From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 34 At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”

35 After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.

38 The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”

40 Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. 41 When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried. (CEB)

A New Covenant | Fifth in Lent

Worship Video:

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (CEB)

A New Covenant

There is something hopeful in the words, “The time is coming.” These words declare a future even when no future can be imagined. The people of Judah were experiencing crisis upon disaster. The Babylonians had destroyed the Jerusalem temple, razing it to the ground. And the twentieth and final king of David’s line, Zedekiah, got captured, had to watch as his sons were slaughtered in front of him, had his eyes put out, and got dragged off to join the other captives already living in Babylon.

Both the temple and the king were signs of God’s faithfulness to, presence among, and favor towards Judah. In that sense, they had lost all sense of assurance that God was with them. Except for a prophet named Jeremiah who put much of the blame for what happened squarely on the people and their unfaithfulness to God, there was nothing left of their kingdom or their religion. All along, Jeremiah had been railing against the people’s idolatrous ways, doing whatever he could to get them to see that God’s judgment would come upon them if they didn’t amend their lives.

It was never God’s covenant faithfulness that was in question. It was the people’s covenant faithfulness. After this disaster had come upon them fully and the people were suffering so much disorder, despair, and destruction of everything they knew, the prophet told them that God still chooses faithfulness to the people. In spite of the idolatry and all the ways that the people had broken faith with God, God refused to break faith with them.

So, instead of yet another word of judgment, Jeremiah speaks of hope where no hope can be seen. He speaks a word of life when all people could see was death surrounding everyone and everything. Jeremiah says that God will make a way, where no way could be discerned. This is a word that declares that a future will yet be. “The time is coming.”

One of the features of the first covenant was a theology of reward and punishment. When the people are faithful, God is with them and nothing can get in their way. When the people aren’t faithful, God will punish them. It’s called Deuteronomic theology and, in some ways, it’s similar to prosperity gospel. The thought was, if you’re healthy, wealthy, and wise, it’s because God has blessed you for your obvious faithfulness. If you’re sick, poor, and not very wise, that suggested you’re obviously a sinner.

The thing is, that theological equation didn’t always work out along those lines. It still doesn’t. There were a lot of very faithful people who suffered in the years of Babylonian siege warfare, deportations, and systematic dismantling of Judean society. With the new covenant, the cycle of sin and punishment will be broken, opening the possibility for a new beginning.

“The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31 CEB). Now, before I go further, I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. When we Christians hear the term “new covenant” we tend to think this is all about Jesus and, therefore, about us. Some Christians in the past and in the present misread and misused this text to justify a supersessionist view that Christianity has superseded Judaism, that the old covenant is no longer valid. But that is absolutely not the case. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks is made “with the people of Israel and Judah” not without them. While we Christians enjoy a wondrous relationship with God through Jesus Christ, our participation does not equate to the exclusion of Jews.

God chose to make a new covenant with God’s people. This new covenant looks similar to the original covenant, but it’s also unlike it in several ways. The new covenant still requires obedience to the commandments of God. This new covenant doesn’t displace the covenant at Sinai because it, too, required radical obedience to God’s commandments. But there is one major difference. In the Sinai covenant, the commandments of God were inscribed on stone tablets. They were external instructions, and therefore easy to break.

We often speak of our human hearts as if they’re the seat of our will and desire, and that’s near to the meaning of the Hebrew word. We want to do as our heart desires. We want to follow our heart. If our heart wants something, we tend to grasp for it whether it’s a sinful thing to do or not. If our hearts are inclined to sin—which they all are—and if we desire to do those things which are sinful—which we all do—and if we want something badly enough—which we often do—then we will follow the longings of our heart instead of obeying God’s instructions.

The people knew the commandments. They knew it was wrong to break them. But they did anyway. So, God calls them unfaithful breakers of the covenant. Their sins were to such a degree that the covenant was effectively annulled and voided. It was a radical breach that was put in terms of a broken marriage. Jeremiah 17:1 says, “Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron pen. It’s etched with a diamond point on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars” (Jeremiah 17:1 CEB).

And yet, God is not about to let the people off the hook as God’s covenant people. If the first covenant didn’t work, then God will rework the details and make a new covenant. The new covenant that God would make with God’s people would be internal. God would inscribe God’s torah—which is better translated instruction than law—on the hearts of the people. God said, “I will put my torah within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). This is a radical shift. Whereas Judah’s sin was written, engraved, and etched on their hearts with an iron pen and a diamond point, now, God will write a new story on the hearts of God’s people. God will rework the writing material that our hearts are, wipe the sin that was written there clean, and write God’s instruction upon the very core of who we are.

When the law of God is written on our hearts, on the seat of our will, on the throne of our desires, we will desire nothing else but to live in absolute loving obedience to God’s covenant. What was external was easy to disregard, but what is internal is a part of us. When God’s law is engraved on the hearts of God’s people, it allows us to break our cycle of failure at keeping God’s law and obeying God’s will. The new covenant will be written within us so that we will delight in doing God’s will.

God offers a fresh start by forgiving our sins, and we’ll know God so intimately that we won’t sin anymore. Forgiveness, then, becomes the basis of the astonishing work of God on our behalf. Divine forgiveness makes inner transformation possible, makes intimacy with God possible, and allows the building of a community of faith that delights in faithful living.

Yet, Jeremiah’s utopian-like vision hasn’t fully arrived yet. Even after Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended, the fullness of this eschatological newness is still somewhere in the future. We believe that the seed of this new covenant has everything to do with Christ, but the resulting fruit hasn’t fully matured in us, let alone the world. I think the answer lies in the now-but-not-yet appearance of God’s kingdom. The kingdom didn’t show up all at once. The preparation has been long and patient work. Christ’s birth, teaching, death, and resurrection inaugurated the kingdom’s arrival, but it’s still on its way. The time is still coming.

The vision of Jeremiah will be wholly fulfilled when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness with the coming of Christ. When that day comes, God will put the law within us and write it on our hearts. This new covenant will be written within us so that we can find the fullness of forgiveness and delight in doing God’s will. That’s when God’s will and ours will finally become one and the same. Right now, we still struggle with doing God’s will, but sanctification means that we strive to accept God’s grace and become more like God every day.

What we know is that God offers us an intimate relationship through Jesus Christ, and that connection to God, that partnership with the Lord, is the beginning of God’s kingdom in each of us, even though the working of God’s grace within us has been long and patient.

When we look inside our heart, what do we see written there now?

Faithful people live by hope. Hope in God’s promises to do a new thing, to bring about a new reality. Maybe that’s why this text comes to us on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. It offers a reminder to us about that very hope, and gives us a chance to reflect upon ourselves, examine our hearts, and see what’s written there. Lent prepares the way for a new Easter Day. Lent is the time of preparation for the Day of Resurrection when our sins are remembered no more, and we know the Lord because the law of God is written within us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Way We Live | 4th in Lent

Worship Video:

Ephesians 2:1-10

1 At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. 2 You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. 3 At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.

45 However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! 6 And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. 7 God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus. 8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. (CEB)

The Way We Live

In this text, the author of Ephesians (who almost certainly was NOT Paul) describes how God’s activity of salvation has and continues to unfold in a fallen world. The several odd-sounding references to “the rule of a destructive spiritual power” (CEB) and “the spirit of disobedience” (CEB) point to a cosmology—an understanding of the created order—that sounds foreign to us. And it is foreign. It’s an ancient Greek cosmology that describes the fallen state of the world from that particular cosmological worldview.

As other translations call it, “The ruler of the power of the air,” (NRSV) simply names the location where this power exists according to this cosmological understanding. The place between the Moon’s orbit and the Earth is where the Devil dwells and rules. If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) you’ll recognize this because it’s essentially the cosmology Lewis uses in those novels: the evil spirits have been cast from the heavens and trapped between earth and the orbit of the moon. It’s presented as a heavenly siege of earth, and in the person of Jesus Christ, God infiltrated enemy territory in a way nothing in creation had ever seen. And just when the evil spirits thought they’d won by killing Jesus, God went and raised him from the dead.

Paul shared this cosmological view of the fallen world with the author of Ephesians. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul wrote: “The god of this age [or “god of this world” (NRSV)] has blinded the minds of those who don’t have faith so they couldn’t see the light of the gospel that reveals Christ’s glory. Christ is the image of God” (CEB).

While our ideas of cosmology have adjusted with the insight of people like Newton and Hubble—they’re always changing, never static—the truth that our world exists in a fallen state of chaos, sin, and evil still stands. The principalities and powers that oppose God are real. Even if our post-modern minds have difficulty attributing the powers to demonic spiritual influences, the principalities and powers are real. The violence, oppression, conflict, distortion, alienation, and harm they inflict on the human race and creation itself is very real. Death, suffering, and pain seem to have their way among us at every turn.

The powers from which we’ve been redeemed and saved are real. Yet, one of the influences of post-modern thought is that we’ve become skeptical of our need to be redeemed from anything, let alone saved. But evil is not a figment of our imaginations. Our propensity to sin is not a figment of our imaginations. The fact that we ourselves and human institutions hurt people is very real. We need a savior.

Evil is at work in the world, and we have been complicit in that evil. In the first three verses, the author of Ephesians lays our guilt bare. “At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:1-3 CEB). That was us. We followed the spirit of disobedience, and our lives were characterized by it.

Anything that opposes God, no matter how innocuous it might appear, can become a power over us. The author of Ephesians described these powers as directed and intentional; guided under “the rule of a destructive spiritual power. We, ourselves, have lived under the influence of powers that oppose God every day of our lives. We did “whatever felt good. And we can see the depth and breadth of evil’s influence on the human race. It’s not like these things are hidden from our eyes. Sometimes they are hidden in plain sight, but that’s really indicative of our inability or unwillingness to discern right from wrong.

Addiction, poverty, violence, war—even our seemingly endless wartime economy—racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, patriotism, wealth, authority, control; all these things have the potential to entice us into opposing God. Even the church can slip into the grip of the powers. We are, after all, a group of fallen people trying to wade through the muck of a fallen world. And it’s not always easy to rely on God’s grace as we ought.

There was a time not too long ago when our Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church loved to use the word effectiveness. There were conversations about how to gauge the “effectiveness for ministry” of pastors and local churches based largely on the numbers. The problem with the idea of effectiveness is that it’s almost entirely about our work instead of God’s. If the church’s main concern is effectiveness, or church growth, why would we need a theology of redemption and salvation when we can just roll up our sleeves and rely on our own strength to bring about God’s kingdom?

One of the introspective pieces to the season of Lent is that we’re invited to do the necessary work of looking inward at ourselves and our community. Maybe one of the ways we do that is to consider how powers that oppose God have influenced us. How have we, at times, given in to them? Those powers can haunt us. They can haunt us as individuals, and they can haunt us as a community.

Such introspection can feel uncomfortable because we might discover things about ourselves that we don’t like. I confess that I’ve wrestled with my own Dark Night of the Soul more than once when all I could see were my sins and unworthiness. I don’t know how common these experiences are, but I know that even saints have had to navigate something similar: St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, John Wesley, St. Teresa of Calcutta. There was a time when John Wesley almost gave up preaching because he didn’t think he had saving faith.

As difficult and terribly uncomfortable as those times or seasons of inner darkness can be, I suppose they have a place. How can we accept that God has redeemed us, that God has saved us, if we can’t accept that we need redeeming and saving in the first place? Who among us, if we don’t think we need to be rescued, would bother to look to a savior? When we are confronted by the depth of our sin, we can finally see how desperate we are for Jesus Christ, and how profound a gift God’s love for us—even us—really is.

There is something ironic and paradoxical that happens when we Christians come together in worship and confess our weakness to the powers. By God’s grace we are strengthened in our opposition to them. Beginning in verse 4, a subtle shift occurs in the language. Instead of the second-person plurals, you, you, you, as soon as God’s rich mercy is mentioned the author turns to first-person plurals, we and us. There is something beautifully inclusive and communal in that shift.

The author reminds us of the once and now: the before and after. All that stuff that you once did is in the past. But now, God’s rich mercy has brought us to life with Christ. Before, you were dead as a result of those things that you did wrong, but now God’s great love has made us alive, raised us up, and seated us in the heavens with Christ.

The language shifts again when the author says, “You are saved by God’s grace!” (Ephesians 2:5 CEB). All this newness, the now after the before resulted from God’s work in Christ. It is all gift, free and undeserved. “God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7 CEB). God loves us more than we can grasp, and God acts toward us with goodness and grace more overflowingly profound than we are capable of imagining.

Verse 8 says, “For you are saved by grace through faith” (my trans). I know the Common English Bible says, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith,” but in the Greek text whose faith or faithfulness it is remains undetermined. So, the sentence could also be about God’s faithfulness to us: “For you are saved by grace through [God’s] faithfulness” (my trans). Either way, this isn’t something we’ve done, it’s God’s gift. It’s not something we did. We can brag about saving ourselves. Even having faith isn’t ours. God makes us capable of faith.

We are the recipients of a remarkable gift from God which, really, amounts to the gift of everything. Did you catch what verse 6 says, “And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6 CEB). We have been made the heirs of everything.

Rather than being something we did, the author of Ephesians declares that we are God’s accomplishment. We, the church, this community of faith and all our gifts and graces, our love and concern for each other, the way we work for good in the world: we are God’s accomplishment. And God has created this community called the church for the very purpose of doing good things. The good things—good work—that we do actively resists the powers, declares our allegiance to God, and exemplifies God’s love and concern for others through us. “God planned for these good things —[these good works]—to be the way that we live our lives” (Ephesians 2:10 CEB).

And yet, we still sin. The principalities and powers are still tempting in their influence. By God’s grace, we may be able to resist the powers, principalities, and forces of evil at work in the world, but we cannot ultimately defeat them. We don’t have that kind of strength. Not even Jesus defeated the powers at work in the world in his lifetime. He resisted them. He turned over tables in the temple courtyard, and he taught truths that were contrary to the powers. And the powers executed him for it.

But Christ’s resurrection from death and defeat has overpowered the powers. And through Christ’s resurrection, we have become God’s accomplishment. And we get to play an incredible, grace-filled role in God’s plan for the age that will yet be. Whereas we formerly did “whatever felt good” we now live out a new reality. We are made to do “good things” because of what God has accomplished for the world in Christ.

In that sense, we are God’s handiwork working for Christ. The author of Ephesians gives us a glimpse of who we were and who we are now that Christ has been raised. We live now in light of Jesus’ resurrection and all that God has done for us. “By grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5 NRSV). God simply loves us too much to leave something as important as salvation in our hands. At the same time, this new identity in Christ comes with a new dedication to good work. And the way we live in resistance to the powers matters.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

God Spoke | Third in Lent

Worship Video:

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

3 You must have no other gods before me.

4 Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. 6 But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 Do not use the LORD your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the LORD won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (CEB)

God Spoke

The Ten Commandments are often touted as part of the law, but law is probably not the best translation into English of the Hebrew word torah. Teaching or instruction work better. One of my Hebrew scholar friends points to Psalm 119, which is the longest chapter in the Bible, and it’s all about how wonderful God’s torah is (Schlimm, 70 Hebrew Words). If we translate torah as law, then it sounds like the psalmist finds legalism the most thrilling thing in human history. One translation says, “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things about your law” (NRSV). In my HazMat days, I had to read various titles of the U.S. Code that dealt with environmental, health, and safety, and I studied parts 29 and 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations to the point that I owned copies of them. I assure you, there’s nothing exciting about reading law.

But instruction is another matter. We seek instruction. Listen to the same verse with torah translated as instruction: “Open my eyes so I can examine the wonders of your Instruction!” (CEB). God’s instruction, God’s teaching, is something we can dive into. It’s something we want to learn more about. One of the reasons we’re here this morning is because we want to learn more about this God who saves and about this God’s instruction for how we should live.

So, the Ten Commandments are less laws that were dumped on a community of recently freed slaves (Here are more rules to follow, yay!); and more instruction that was given as a gift for a newly liberated people so they could build and maintain a new kind of community—a more egalitarian community—that looked vastly different from what they experienced in Egypt.

The first commandment, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me,” does not insist that there are no other gods (Exodus 20:2-3 CEB). One of the difficulties for us is that we don’t want to acknowledge the polytheism in which we live. We pretend that there are no other gods or offers from those gods for security, well-being, devotion, and joy on the table. But there are. Wealth, power, prestige, nationalism—anything that we choose over obedience to the Lord—can become our “other gods.”

In the first commandment—the first instruction we’re given—God demands our full attention and full devotion. We must have no other gods in the presence of the Lord. If our bodies are temples, then we need to understand that this God does not share space with other gods.

Our whole life, every sphere and arena of our life, is organized around and wrapped up in one singular loyalty. This faithful God who rescued a nation of slaves, this God who continues to save, will brook no other allegiance in our lives. And we don’t get to rationalize our way out of this God’s claim on us. There are no affiliate memberships with this God. We’re either all-in or not. This commandment is foundational. The commandments that follow can only be kept when we keep the first commandment.

The next two commandments continue to describe God’s distinctiveness. The instruction of the second commandment that we are not to make idols, and are not to bow down or worship them, is both about the temptation to worship other gods, and about the temptation to craft an image of the Lord. It’s tempting for human beings to locate, domesticate, distort, and diminish the Lord into something we can control. But this God is free. This God will operate in absolute, uncontested, uncompromising freedom. There is nothing in heaven or on earth that we can use to make God visible or available.

In fact, God describes making an idol as hating God, and God describes those who keep God’s commandments as loving God. Jesus says the same thing in the Gospel of John, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (14:15 CEB; c.f. v23-24). It’s like that old joke about the pastor and the rabbi. When the two friends parted, the pastor said, “Keep the faith.” To which the rabbi responded, “Keep the commandments.” In faith, there simply is no substitute for obedience.

The instruction that we are not to misuse the Lord’s name is, like the second commandment, tied to God’s profound sovereignty. Just as we don’t get to put God in our box by crafting an image, we don’t get to use God’s name to lend legitimacy to our pursuits and purposes. God will not acquit those who misuse God’s name in this way. This has nothing to do with cussing. Go cuss all you want. (I’m kidding). This commandment is about misusing God’s name to legitimize sinful activity that God would never approve of. When I hear someone say it’s their “God-given right” to do or say something, they better be sure before declaring their activity has God’s stamp of approval. “…for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7 NRSV).

These first three teachings each prohibit the tempting ways that we human beings try to diminish God. The fourth commandment about keeping the Sabbath is one that we Americans are really not very good at. The idea of rest runs contrary to American economic ideals. It runs contrary to a lot of economic ideals. But that’s exactly the point. Intentional disengagement from economic activity—rest—reflects God’s own nature. God is not a workaholic.

You may note that worship is not even mentioned in this commandment. Christians do not worship on the Sabbath. We worship on the first day of the week, not the seventh. When the people were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh did not allow them to rest. God, as a liberator, insists that rest is a must for our well-being. We’re so bad at Sabbath-keeping that we try to shove our rest into a week of vacation with a pages-long itinerary. Work-stoppage announces our loyalty to God by an act of trust that we will have enough even with a day of rest.

It’s only bad habit that causes us to continue in our disbelieving ways. Work-stoppage also speaks to the dignity of every human person. We are not to be used as instruments for other people’s means. God teaches that there are limits to how human beings may be used.

The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the LORD your God is giving you” is a commandment for adult children, not merely little children (Exodus 20:12 CEB). It’s not about being subordinate or obedient to parents, but giving proper weight, respect, or seriousness to our parents. Distorted relationships leave ruin in their wake. Relationships are important to God, and no relationship is so basic as that between parents and children. No matter how old we are, we are always children of our parents, and we are always the parents of our children. How we honor our mother and father matters so much that God included it here. Relationships matter, and how we honor—or dishonor—our parents reveals something about us that the rest of our community will see.

The rest of the commandments continue their focus on social relationships. “Do not kill” (Exodus 20:13 CEB) is so simple that it requires interpretation. Scholars still debate exactly how we should translate the word: kill or murder. But the point, I think, is that human life belongs to God. Human life has intrinsic value. We are made in God’s image. There are interpretive arguments about capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and murder, that I can’t settle in one sermon. This commandment invites continual communal reflection. When we take a human life for any reason, we essentially act in God’s stead, and that ought to trouble us.

The seventh commandment, “Do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 CEB) points to the fact that human sexuality is both wondrous and dangerous. It’s wondrous when it’s practiced with respect, dignity, and mutuality. It can be dangerous because sexuality can evoke some of the worst thoughts, feelings, and behavior in us. Sexuality is dangerous when it’s destructive of persons or community relationships. Covenantal fidelity, family integrity, and genuine, life-giving, respectful relationships between spouses matter profoundly.

The eighth commandment, “Do not steal” (Exodus 20:15 CEB) is also about relationships in the community. When necessary goods make life possible, to steal from someone is a violation of that person. Anyone whose home has been burglarized can tell you that a lot of personal trauma goes along with that kind of violation.

At the same time, this instruction cannot be used to defend the unjust distribution of goods. In fact, the unjust distribution of goods may well constitute theft. Sharing is also a requirement of God. No one with private property gets to use this commandment to withhold alms as if they think the requirement to give alms—or even pay taxes—amounts to stealing.

If we end up nibbling away at the livelihood of the poor and needy by keeping all of our stuff for ourselves, then we become the thieves and violators of this commandment. Regarding property, John Wesley suggested that if we have two cloaks, we’re a thief who has stolen from someone without a cloak. Regarding money, he also thought it important to consider, “Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” Our attachment to things in the face of hunger that spans the globe, our fence-building and efforts to keep what we mistakenly believe is ours should raise serious questions about how we define stealing.

The ninth commandment, “Do not testify falsely against your neighbor” refers especially to perjury in legal proceedings. This is also about the violation of a person by another. If there is not a place where the accused and vulnerable can have access to impartial judges and truth, then society as a whole is at risk. The prophets of Israel railed against this kind of injustice. Truth matters for individuals and community.

Finally, we get to the tenth commandment, “Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17 CEB). This last teaching isn’t about outward acts. This one has to do with our internal desires and how our internal desires have the potential to damage our community. This is about acting upon our desires to reach out and take what is not our own from someone else.

This commandment is concerned with community, but even more, I think, it’s concerned with our inner self, our core, our spirit. When we violate any of the commandments, that violation begins within us. The desire to break any of God’s teachings starts with the inordinate desire to do so within us. Covetousness—desire—breeds discontent within us that easily leads to violation and abuse of other people. It’s not easy to guard against this when our entire society has been instilled with the idea, the value, the so-called “God-given right” of gain. When our heart isn’t right, neither will be our actions. When our actions are wrong, the root of that wrong can be found within us. It’s the tenth commandment that that gives us insight on how to keep the first nine.

The Ten Teachings come to us as a proclamation from God’s own mouth. God spoke these words. They describe who this God is. And they tell us how we behave as this God’s people. The Ten Commandments tells us that, to get it right with God means we have to get it right with our neighbors. These teachings are deeply concerned with community: the community’s relationship with God, the community’s relationship with each other, and each person in the community’s self-awareness.

Perhaps the question we’re invited to work through during the season of Lent is whether we’re willing to allow our imagination, our inner thoughts, and our relationships with others to be this profoundly reshaped by this God. If we do, perhaps we too, will have our eyes opened to the wonders of God’s instruction.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Human Thoughts | 2nd in Lent

Worship Video:

Mark 8:31-38

31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37 What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (CEB)

Human Thoughts

The first several chapters of Mark’s Gospel describe Jesus’ travels throughout the region of Galilee where he gathered his disciples, healed people of all manner of ailments, performed miracles, taught in parables, shut down the criticisms of religious authorities, and even reached out to Gentiles in the region of the Gerasenes. Things had been going well. The disciples had to have seen Jesus as a rising star, and they had the privilege of being his disciples.

When Jesus asked his disciples who people said Jesus was, they answered that some said he was John the Baptizer, others said he was Elijah, and others said he was one of the prophets. Then, Jesus asked the disciples who they said he was, and Peter made his famous confession: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Peter saw it, and he got it. He knew who Jesus was. But, Peter and the other disciples had their own ideas and expectations of what it meant—sometimes even a few of us disciples today do, too.  We have expectations of God.

So, when Jesus began to teach the disciples that he must suffer many things, be rejected, put to death, and raised from the dead after three days they didn’t understand what he was talking about. They completely failed to grasp this concept of the Messiah that involved suffering and death. The cross was an enigma to the disciples, and they didn’t fully understand this path of discipleship that they were walking with Jesus. After all they had witnessed, after all the teaching they had heard, Jesus said that the Messiah must be rejected by the chief priests and scribes, suffer and die, and rise from the dead.

It didn’t make sense to Peter. Why would Jesus say these off-the-wall things? No siree. The disciples were riding this train, and it was glory bound. This suffering and death thing was not gonna fly, even if there was a resurrection at the end. Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him for such non-sensical talk. What’s the point in having a Messiah if he’s going to be rejected and killed? Why would anyone want to follow someone who is going to be made to suffer many things and then be killed? To do so might mean that those who follow a suffering Messiah be subjected to suffering, might end up suffering with him or even because of him. Nobody wants that.

That wasn’t something the disciples wanted to hear. And Peter was certainly not going to negotiate the matter. He pulled Jesus aside for an emergency intervention and told Jesus exactly what he needed to do. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Lord, he WILL be victorious whether he likes it or not. He WILL fix everything that’s wrong with the Temple, even if he has to put the chief priests and scribes in their place! He WILL get rid of the Romans and establish an autonomous Jewish state by re-establishing King on David’s throne. Jesus is supposed to win, for Pete’s sake, not be defeated by rejection, suffering, and death! Peter was not about to let this tragic Jesus thing go down. He had to talk some sense into his teacher!

But Jesus turns to look at the rest of his disciples and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33 CEB).

There is serious discord in the ranks. It’s clear that the disciples don’t yet realize what it means to follow Jesus. They don’t yet understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus the Christ. They don’t understand that suffering, rejection, and death will accompany anyone who dares to follow the Human One. And, I wonder if we realize that.

Christians do misunderstand the cross, and sometimes we fail to accept its mystery because the theology of the cross is so different from our understanding of God. We often prefer a theology of glory. People in our world are so concerned with glory and might-makes-right that it becomes difficult for us to comprehend—let alone apply—commandments that reflect a theology of the cross such as turn the other cheek, forgive and reconcile with those who injure you, love your enemies. They seem like an enigma to us, even in light of the cross on which Jesus allowed himself to be killed.

We have the same feelings as Peter did about suffering. We don’t want to experience it. Even if we haven’t suffered much, we’ve definitely had enough of it. We want to keep suffering as far away as possible. Every pastor can see the evidence of that written all over our yearly worship attendance records. Good Friday attendance is a drop in the bucket compared to Easter Sunday. No one wants to hear about suffering. But we’ll take the glory.

Suffering is not a topic that draws crowds. Like Peter, we want to pull Jesus aside and set our teacher straight. This suffering stuff is not going to sell. Focus on the glory, Jesus! Yet, there is no glory without the cross. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. To know God is to know Christ, and to know Christ is to know that Christ suffered and died for us. To live as a disciple of Christ means that we have our own cross to bear.

In fact, after Jesus set Peter straight, he called the crowds together with his disciples to make the Gospel message clear. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them” (Mark 8:34-35 CEB). Who God really is can confound our expectations as much as it did people in Jesus’ day. God shows mercy to sinners instead of condemning them. God’s strength is shown in weakness instead of might, conquest, or power-grabs. God’s wisdom is veiled in parables. God’s love is revealed in sacrifice. God’s victory was achieved through defeat. God’s truth is wrapped in the guise of paradox. God’s offer of salvation is revealed in death.

Those who want to save their life, who want to cling to a theology of glory without the cross, will lose it. Those who lose their live for the sake of the gospel—those who take up their cross and follow Jesus down the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering—will save it. Jesus tried to explain that what we expect of God does not necessarily add up to who God is. Rather, we find God right in the middle of the very places we so often assume God is absent: places of uncertainty, place of danger, places of toil, places of torture, places of hurt, places of suffering.

Jesus also talked about losing and gaining one’s life, or soul. The Greek word used here is ψυχὴν, which means more than one’s physical life. It is the word from which we get our word psyche. It constitutes the inner core of the person, that which is the self. In the context of Mark’s Gospel, it points out the potential for martyrdom.

When Jesus called his own generation adulterous and sinful, he was speaking symbolically of idolatry. Instead of working to conform our lives to the image of Christ we try to conform Christ to the image we think God ought to look like. Instead of acknowledging that God is in control, we either attempt to take control or pretend we already are. Do we really want to accept the mystery of the cross and follow Jesus that far?

Even Peter failed to accept the mystery of the cross, and Jesus had to correct him. Those who want to follow Jesus are challenged and invited to follow Jesus even to the cross because following Jesus is a choice we make. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come. [Jesus] says rather ‘If [anyone]’ is prepared to spurn all other offers which come [their] way in order to follow him” (The Cost of Discipleship, 97), then let them say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow.

Jesus continued by describing, in one sense, how precious one’s life or soul is and, in another sense, how not in control of ourselves we really are. What can anyone give in exchange for their soul? You can’t buy it back if you lose it or give it to the wrong lord. Only Christ, who died to redeem us, has that kind of power.

The crux of the Gospel, so to speak, is the cross, and the cross reveals the contrast between God’s thoughts and human thoughts. If we’re to follow Jesus and truly be his disciples, then we must learn to think the way God thinks, not the way the world thinks. And Jesus tells us not to be ashamed to relinquish our piteous preconceptions. Yes, the gospel might look weird. Yes, the gospel is full of paradox at which the world might scoff.

Lent is a season in which we get to examine ourselves: our thoughts, our actions, our faith, our discipleship, our everything. I think it’s really a gift to us from the church. We are invited to repent of our sins, turn back to God with renewed and contrite hearts and minds. Through our repentance, we seek God in fresh ways so that we can find healing. It is a chance for us to risk obedience and love where once there was disobedience and a lack of love. During Lent we are confronted with the mystery of the cross and challenged to integrate the reality of Jesus’ suffering, as well as our own, into our understanding of Jesus and discipleship.

The demands, value, and rewards of faithful following of Jesus are clearly spelled out. It is up to us to choose whether we’re going to follow or not. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34 CEB). There are other offers on the table, of course. But that’s the offer Jesus makes to us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about gain or power or a life of ease. It’s about power to survive in a world where we often find ourselves powerless, and it’s the promise of God to sustain us through life until the final resurrection when we rise from mortality into immortality in the eternal Dominion of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Tuesday Update: Opening March 07

Dear members and friends of First UMC,

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

It’s time.

We have all waited (and I confess that my wait has been more impatient than patient), but it’s time to re-open for worship together in our sanctuary.

Posey County’s infection rate is trending down. As of today, we’re in the yellow but I hope we’ll change to blue soon. Most of our more vulnerable population have received their vaccine shots. If you have not received your COVID-19 vaccination yet, please do so. (I’m getting my first shot today because I’m eligible as clergy). Indiana is now vaccinating those age 60 and above. You can get to the web portal to sign up for your vaccination here: ISDH – Novel Coronavirus: Vaccine Information and Planning.

Worship Opening:
We will be OPEN for in-person worship at 10:30 a.m. beginning on SUNDAY, MARCH 07. Our worship service will still be available online as a live stream for those who do not yet feel comfortable with gathering together.

In order for us to gather safely, however, we all need to agree to follow the requirements listed below for the sake of our congregational community. Please read the requirements so you know what to expect. (You can also find them here: In-Person Worship COVID-19 Requirements). Following the requirements is one way that we can take care of each other.

COVID-19 Requirements for In-person Worship:
1. Do No Harm. IF YOU HAVE ANY SIGNS OF ILLNESS WHATSOEVER, DO NOT ENTER THE BUILDING. Our worship services will still be available online for those who cannot join us in person.

2. To enter the building, you MUST wear a mask properly over your nose and mouth. You MUST wear your mask properly throughout the service.

3. ENTER and EXIT the Sanctuary through the MAIN STREET DOORS only (unless you are coming from one of the adult Sunday School classes).

4. Wash your hands with hand sanitizer upon entry and maintain a physical distance from others of at least 6 feet. Please do not shake hands or hug.

5. Individually wrapped communion cups with juice and wafers will be available for pickup at the entrance. Take the one you touch.

6. Please fill the FRONT of the sanctuary first, even if it means you don’t get to sit in your “favorite” seat.

7. Please take your seat and do not linger in the aisles. Our aisles are simply too narrow to allow for social distancing if people are standing in them.

8. When we dismiss, please allow those at the BACK of the sanctuary to exit first.

9. As an added precaution, we will not hand out any materials for the service.

10. At this time, there will be no children’s Sunday School classes, nor a children’s moment gathering in the worship service.

Quick Financial Update:
While I don’t have any information on expenses (I’ll get those in March), I can give you a quick update on what we have received in donations as of February 21st. The good news is that we had our highest giving total for January in the nearly six years that I’ve been your pastor. (The five Sundays did affect January’s total). The bad news is that we’re looking at our lowest giving total for February in the same time period. As I stated in my last update, we expect a drop in February. It’s a trend that we see almost every year. But, as you can see from the graph below, this is a fairly significant drop.

Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for the support you give for the sake of our congregation and our United Methodist Church’s ongoing mission and ministry. Your faithfulness makes our congregation’s good work possible.

I look forward to seeing you on March 7th!

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Christopher Millay
Lead Pastor

In-Person Worship COVID-19 Requirements (Updated 2021-02-23)

1. Do No Harm. IF YOU HAVE ANY SIGNS OF ILLNESS WHATSOEVER, DO NOT ENTER THE BUILDING. Our worship services will still be available online for those who cannot join us in person.

2. To enter the building, you MUST wear a mask properly over your nose and mouth. You MUST wear your mask properly throughout the service.

3. ENTER and EXIT the Sanctuary through the MAIN STREET DOORS only (unless you are coming from one of the adult Sunday School classes).

4. Wash your hands with hand sanitizer upon entry, and maintain a physical distance from others of at least 6 feet. Please do not shake hands or hug.

5. Individually wrapped communion cups with juice and wafers will be available for pickup at the entrance. Take the one you touch.

6. Please fill the FRONT of the sanctuary first, even if it means you don’t get to sit in your “favorite” seat.

7. Please take your seat and do not linger in the aisles. Our aisles are simply too narrow to allow for social distancing if people are standing in them.

8. When we dismiss, please allow those at the BACK of the sanctuary to exit first.

9. As an added precaution, we will not hand out any materials for the service.

10. At this time, there will be no children’s Sunday School classes, nor a children’s moment gathering in the worship service.

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Once for All | 1st in Lent

Worship video:

1 Peter 3:18-22

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. (CEB)

Once for All

For only five verses, there is a lot packed into our little text from First Peter, and some of it sounds a little weird. But this epistle was written to a broad swath of the church across five Roman provinces of modern-day Asia Minor that were experiencing some sort of suffering because of their conversion to the Christian faith. So, when this letter talks about suffering, the author didn’t necessarily mean suffering in general, like I’m really suffering from this ingrown toenail, but I’ll persevere in my suffering for Jesus.

In the epistle’s context, suffering refers specifically to suffering that results from living according to the Christian faith instead of living according to the dominant culture around you. This is the kind of suffering that most of us will never experience because we will likely never experience so desperate a context as what these Christians experienced.

First Peter was not written to a thriving church that existed arm-in-arm with the dominant culture. It was written to a church that often found itself under profound duress, even official state-sponsored persecution. This epistle was not written to encourage people to boldly go out and proclaim the Gospel to sinners. This was written as a short-term survival guide.

The author seems to have held the idea that Jesus would return very soon, which was a belief held in common by the earliest Christians. So, they expected that any suffering they were experiencing at that time would be short-lived. We know, from Paul’s earlier letters, that he also believed Jesus would return during his lifetime. His later letters show that Paul realized that might not be the case after all. So, it makes sense—if the suffering is expected to be short-lived—for the author of First Peter to encourage Christians to just hang on a little longer.

But that same message feels unsatisfactory to a church that has been waiting for nearly two millennia. In fact, the church has come to understand that our mission for the dominion of God is to work for justice while we wait for Christ to return. (I discussed that in my sermon on the Transfiguration last Sunday). And there are parts of First Peter that encourage us to do just that: to continue to do what is good, do what is right, do not fear, and do not be intimidated (c.f. 1 Peter 3:13-14, NRSV). Do what is right no matter the cost. That is a message every Christian should heed.

That said, I think it’s also important for the whole church to acknowledge how this epistle has been misused—especially in American history—to justify slavery and keep oppressed peoples locked in their oppression. There was a time in our nation’s history when the only sermons that slave owners would allow their slaves to hear were based on 1 Peter chapters 2 and 3, which discuss submission.

“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18 NRSV). We, as the church in America, at the very least need to acknowledge that our churches, pastors, and people in the past and in the present, have used the words of First Peter to cause harm. Methodists have not been immune to this harm and misuse of Holy Scripture. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South split away from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. Slave owners browbeat their slaves with this text to make them feel like subservience was holy, even declaring that the Bible says it’s commendable when they suffered abuse like this.

This book has also been misused to keep women in a place of subservience, even to the point of accepting abuse. “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2 NRSV). Christian pastors and lay people have been guilty of encouraging women to endure violence and abuse in their marriages by telling them, wrongly, that Jesus wants them to persevere, that their suffering is faithful. And that, by enduring the abuse, they might just save their abusive husbands, and then their husbands will love them the way they ought.

Faithfulness does not require anyone to tolerate abuse of any kind.

Let me say that again. Faithfulness does not require anyone to tolerate abuse of any kind. It does not mean that we stay in abusive situations for the sake of the abuser, or that we encourage others to do so. These are abhorrent misuses of First Peter that fail to take the context of the epistle into account. It’s important to acknowledge that.

Our five verses of First Peter were written to remind a suffering church—a church enduring actual persecution and hardship because of their Christian faith—that they are loved beyond measure. God loves us so profoundly that Christ suffered for us. “For Christ, once for all, suffered on account of sins, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous ones in order to bring you into God’s presence. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 my trans).

The author wanted to remind us how much God loves us. Jesus Christ suffered for our sins so that we might be ushered into God’s very presence. Christ was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit. Death did not win. Suffering did not win. Therefore, they will not win against us.

Verses 19 and 20 are, perhaps, the oddest-sounding verses in this text. “And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water” (1 Peter 3:19-20 CEB).

We don’t know with any certainty who or what the author means by “the spirits in prison.” We can make the case that it refers either to those who died in the flood, or to the offspring of the angels—or the angels themselves—whose evil led directly to the flood narrative of Noah and the ark. This line of thought likely stems from traditions associated with the book of First Enoch which the New Testament book of Jude quotes directly (c.f. Jude 14-15 & 1 Enock 1:9, also Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4).

In the first sense, it emphasizes the fact that God will go to any length to save us, even proclaiming God’s victory to those who died long ago. In the second sense, it gives encouragement to Christians who are suffering for their faith, because everyone—even evil spirits—will know that though Jesus Christ, God wins.

I tend to lean toward the former meaning, that God will go to any length to save us. God’s love simply runs deeper than we can imagine. If we can imagine any person outside of God’s love, then it’s proof of how impoverished our imaginations are. If we can imagine any person beyond God’s love, then our understanding of God’s love is a sad and piddly knockoff compared to the real thing.

For some reason, people like to put limitations on God. Some Christians claim that non-believers have to accept Jesus while they’re still alive, because it’ll be too late when they die. They don’t believe there’s any chance of salvation after a person dies. But First Peter 4:6 seems to suggest something quite different: “Indeed, this is the reason the good news was also preached to the dead. This happened so that, although they were judged as humans according to human standards, they could live by the Spirit according to divine standards” (1 Peter 4:6 CEB). It suggests that those who don’t listen to the Gospel in life get to hear it in death So that… they could live by the Spirit. It requires a great deal of arrogance on our part to put limitations on God’s love, mercy, and grace. Human beings don’t get to decide who God saves. God is far and away bigger than the box we try to stuff God into.

If Christ is willing to proclaim God’s victory even to the disobedient dead so that they can have life, then those Christians who are suffering for the sake of their faith can have an assurance that God will rescue them. And again, that’s not really us. The most we have to complain about is that someone wished us Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. That’s not persecution. But we can take heart that God will save us, too.

Just as the ark saved eight people from the flood waters, so we are saved through baptism, which Christian teaching associates with Christ’s death and resurrection. The power to save doesn’t come through the water itself. As First Peter says, it’s not about taking a bath and getting the dirt scrubbed from our bodies. Rather, the saving power of baptism comes through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It’s an appeal to our conscience that we will do what is right, live what is right, no matter what. God made a way to save when salvation seemed impossible. God always makes a way for us. Floods are destructive forces of nature. But God’s power transforms even the floodwaters into a means of salvation. Resurrection brings life from death.

Verse 22 adds perspective to the situation. Jesus is now in heaven at the right hand of God. Everything is now subject to Jesus Christ. Angels, authorities, and powers are all made subject to Christ. These authorities and powers may judge us now, but one day they will be judged. If everything, every authority, every power, ever person, every angelic being, every everything is now subject to Jesus Christ, what have we to fear? We can continue to live according to our faith precisely because God saves, and we have been made one with Christ through baptism.

Remember, Jesus suffered for our sins for the purpose of bringing us into God’s presence. That was why Jesus died and rose: it was for you, it was for me, it was for a messed-up world that needed redemption and healing. No matter how wounded we are or have been, no matter how unworthy we might think of ourselves, no matter who we are, where we’re from, what we’ve done, God loves us despite our wounds and our failings. God loves us whether we feel worthy of it or not, and I know that sometimes we don’t feel like God could love someone like us. That’s why we’re reminded that, “For Christ, once for all, suffered on account of sins, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous ones in order to bring you into God’s presence” (1 Peter 3:18a my trans).

If you think you’re unworthy, or if you have ever thought you were unworthy, I have a different word to share with you; I have good news to proclaim to you. God loves you. God loves you so much there is no way you’re going to escape it unscathed. God will go to any length to save those whom God loves. And, let me say this again:

God loves you.

God loves you.

God loves you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay